I must confess to an artistic narrow-mindedness: Rob Reiner would not have been my first choice to direct any movie based on a Stephen King novel. There – I said it. Evidently, King agreed with me back in 1989…or perhaps simply did not want anyone in Hollywood tampering with what he considered to be his favorite and most closely guarded literary masterwork. Thankfully Reiner didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Nor did he give up on the project, coaxing King into preliminary meetings that revealed a mutual verve for the movie that the author eventually embraced. And Reiner has since proven that he was exactly the right director for Misery (1990); a paralytic and spellbinding psychological melodrama.
Misery takes us on a terrorizing journey into the mind of a very disturbed middle-age frump; think Susan Boyle with a few loose spark plugs. In Misery’s case, the house-bound chicklet is one Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates in an Oscar-winning role); the self-professed biggest fan of best-selling author Paul Sheldon (James Caan). For the next 114 min. Annie will save Paul’s life only to make him wish she had let him die out there in the snow after an impromptu blizzard caused his Mustang to careen over the side of a very steep cliff.
Movies about two people essentially talking to one another in a confined space are very cheap to make but exceedingly difficult to pull off without tedium quickly setting in for the audience. In order for everything to click the director needs but two essentials beyond mere bravery. He needs a killer screenplay with plenty of suspense and pathos, and, actors capable of sustaining scenes in close proximity to one another without the added benefit of being infrequently interrupted by SFX or even a periodic change in scenery to keep the eye focused and mind entertained.
In this regard Reiner has been heaven-blessed with the presence of James Caan and particularly Kathy Bates in her breakout role as the unhinged freak with a literary fixation. Caan, who spends three quarters of the story strapped to a metal bed or bound in a wheelchair, infrequently drugged and having his feet repeatedly broken at the ankle with a sledgehammer while being mentally tortured by other means, nevertheless makes his presence known and felt. But Bates is the star – warts and all – her unprepossessing plain Jane looks a deceptive masquerade that slowly reveals the severity of her extreme melancholia and mental derangement. Bate’s Annie can make one’s skin crawl with her ever-increasing instability that pivots on a dime; cheerful and accommodating one minute – raging lunacy the next. Herein, Annie’s displeasure seems to be dictated by Paul’s decision to kill off Misery Chastain; the fictional character he created and had sustained through a series of wildly popular romance novels.
When Paul’s car accidentally overturned and rolled down the mountainside he was on his way to Manhattan for a meeting with story editor, Marcia Sindell (Lauren Bacall) on his latest, and final, installment in the Misery series; his piece de resistance. Too bad Annie doesn’t feel the same way. A nurse – presumably retired and living obscurely in the woods – Annie dragged Paul to her secluded cabin where she bound his wounds and reset his broken legs. Paul is undeniably repulsed by his first glimpse of those shattered limbs, but rather impressed at how well he had begun to heal – thanks to Annie’s vigilant expertise. That is, until Annie read his as yet unpublished manuscript and realized that Misery Chastain has died. For Paul, it’s a fitting conclusion to a heroine he’s known, loved, but more recently begun to resent. After all, his commitment to the Misery series has prevented him from exploring his craft as a writer in new and alternative ways.
But for Annie, Misery’s demise represents an implosion of her entire world – one based in fantasy and dictated by her own precariously perched imagination. Plunged into a maelstrom of all-consuming mental chaos Annie forces Paul to burn his manuscript before embarking on a complete rewrite that will resurrect Misery Chastain from the fiery ashes. But as Paul begins to re-conceptualize his words, working feverishly to finish the rewrite, he becomes more acutely aware that Annie will never let him leave her house alive.
The now famous ‘hobbling’ scene, in which Annie breaks both of Paul’s feet with a sledgehammer after he has tried to escape, caused more than a few hysterical winces in theaters back in 1990. Today, it remains a pivotal moment of grand guinol. Yet, what is most unsettling of all is Bates’ sustained and subtly nuanced performance that convincingly reveals the utter craziness of her character; Annie’s slow descend into insanity made chillingly real and observantly evil. As the audience we increasingly fear for Paul’s life while perversely sympathizing with Annie’s inexplicable derangement that – like Paul - has made her a prisoner of Misery Chastain’s celebrity culture.
If the movie endures at all – and it decidedly does – it is because of Kathy Bates’ variedly and haunting layers of psychosis – if only because Bates makes them all seem so palpably genuine and plausible. When her Annie speaks to Paul under the influence of this increasingly derailed sanity Bates’ eyes are as lifeless as a shark’s, her tone monolithic, yet like a great molten vat of lava brewing beneath the surface, ready to explode and consume any and everything in its path. Misery would have been nothing at all without Bates’ presence and she wields a mighty axe (or sledgehammer, as the case may be) indeed; her performance full of some strange and sublime off key music (apart from her fascination with Liberace) that continues to decay Annie’s mental clarity as it increasingly plucks the audience into a nail-biting and frenzied nightmare.
And yet, Misery is not just Kathy Bates, or even James Caan. Rob Reiner illustrates that he knows how to direct a movie using nothing more than two or three camera set ups in very tight quarters. With the exception of the film’s opening sequence – taking place in a mountain chalet – and the finale – where an emotionally and physically crippled Paul meets Marcia for lunch only to think he suddenly sees Annie approaching them with a pushcart of desserts from across the room – the bulk of the visuals shot inside a remote, dark and decidedly unattractive cabin in the snowy woods; most of the action taking place in the den Annie has converted into Paul’s bedroom, and later, down in the even more uninviting damp basement where Annie has dragged Paul to hide him from an investigating sheriff, Buster (Richard Farnsworth). Regrettably, Buster discovers Paul anyway and is thereafter shot through the stomach at close range by Annie with a double-gauge shotgun.
Reiner’s attention to pacing is subtle but he never allows the story to drag. The movie ‘moves’ like a careening car through some dark ride thrill attraction at the county fair, evoking thrills, chills, danger and the ultimate resolution – Annie’s death as she is repeatedly struck in the head by Paul using his Underhill typewriter and left to bleed out on the floor. Misery is quite possibly the all-time great cinematic adaptation of a Stephen King novel. The story was solid to begin with; but Bates, Caan and Reiner have given us the goods with a decidedly chilling visualization; the net result – Misery is no longer King’s favorite story…it’s also his favorite film.
After having to contend with lackluster, non-anamorphic transfers from the now defunct Polygram Home Entertainment and early MGM DVD releases that did not fare much better MGM/Fox Home Entertainment has revisited Misery on Blu-ray with a stunning re-mastered Collector’s Edition. The anamorphic widescreen image exhibits exemplary visual quality. Colors are fully saturated, bright and vibrant. Contrast levels are bang on with deep blacks and very pristine whites. Age-related artifacts have been cleaned up as has earlier edge enhancement and pixelization issues for a visual presentation that is smooth and easy on the eyes. Fine details are fully realized even during the darkest scenes. The audio is remastered in 5.1 DTS; quite aggressive during the opening blizzard sequence and final showdown between Paul and Annie. A litany of extras are all direct imports from the MGM DVD and include: five featurettes detailing (1) the film’s production, (2) the psychology of Annie’s character (3) the law and celebrity stalking, (4) the psychology behind celebrity stalking, and (5) the development of the screenplay – plus stills, audio commentary and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)